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Van Buren, Martin (1782–1862)

VAN BUREN, MARTIN (1782–1862)

Martin Van Buren of Kinderhook, New York, was admitted to the bar in 1803 and quickly established himself as a successful lawyer and politician. While serving in the New York legislature, Van Buren and a group of close associates known as the Albany Regency constituted the first political machine with a modern cast in the nation. As such the Regency gave a new direction to American politics.

But Van Buren did not consider the political process an end in itself; he saw in it a mode for achieving his notion of a Jeffersonian republic, in which a judicious division of power and responsibility between the central government and the states turned on a strict construction of the Constitution. Opposition was expressed in broad construction, along Hamiltonian lines. Between these two positions, the one emphasizing state power, the other national, the very essence of sovereignty would be in constant conflict over public questions, a conflict he thought essential to the democratic governance of the states and the nation. He carried his ideas of an adversarial party system to Washington when elected a United States senator in 1821, and over the two terms he served, developed, and promoted them. Van Buren bound together into a cohesive program the personal factions that constituted his party. As he had planned, his partisan coalition gave impetus to a specific political opposition. Thus, he played a significant role in the formation of the current two-party system.

Van Buren articulated a historical view of strict construction. He was a frequent critic of the centralizing doctrines of the marshall court and supported measures to curb judicial review. He drafted andrew jackson's veto of the maysville road bill, the first comprehensive treatment of the responsibility of the central government to fund internal improvements in the various states. Van Buren distinguished projects that were clearly intrastate from those that were interstate in character. In withholding the support of the national government for the economic development of the individual states, he relied partly on james monroe's veto of the Cumberland Road Bill, but he took care to assert that many projects purely local in character and initiated by a state might deserve support under constitutional provisions that provided for the common defense and the general welfare. His distinction depended upon many variables which could change with time and with circumstance.

Van Buren's second expression of what might be properly called the New Jeffersonianism was in the financial policy he pursued as President (1837–1841): the subtreasury system, which looked to the separation of the federal government from the state deposit banks. The federal government held most of the nation's specie currency, the basis of the paper money supply; thus it would act as a restraint on state banks, curbing their tendencies to speculation and ensuring a more equitable distribution of credit. His means may have been orthodox and deflationary, but they acted as a restriction upon state power, contrary to thomas jefferson's ideas on government. Van Buren's stand on the powers of Congress over the territories, however, was a restatement of Jeffersonian views expressed in the northwest ordinance of 1787. Van Buren added his own interpretation of Article IV, section 3, of the Constitution, which delegates to the Congress the power "to make needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property of the United States." In doing so he went further than john marshall and agreed with joseph story who asserted that the power was exclusive and that "rules and regulations" covered all possible contingencies. Van Buren had supported the missouri compromise as a proper exercise of congressional power even though, as a matter of precedent, he thought the Ordinance of 1787 excluded slavery from all territories. In the United States senate he voted against the bill organizing a territorial government for Florida because it sustained slavery. The most complete exposition of his stand on the territorial question of the late 1840s and 1850s is expressed in an address he prepared for the New York Democratic legislative caucus. It was the basis for the platform of the Free Soil party in the campaign of 1848 and the spirit and the substance of the Republican party platform in the campaigns of 1856 and 1860.

W. John Niven


Niven, W. John 1983 Martin Van Buren and the Romantic Age of American Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.

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